It may look like you’re losing ground, but you’re on your way to a win.
A couple of weeks ago my husband and I went up to spend the weekend at a lake where he spent his childhood summers. His father came up, we did a little fishing (my first fishing trip ever!) and then they took me to the river to see something special.
"The smell might be a little hard for you to take," they warned me, "but it’s worth it."
As we walked to the edge of a small rushing creek, the fishy odour was indeed overwhelming. When I saw a row of dead salmon at the water’s edge, I had to turn away at first. Steeling myself, I turned back and focused on the middle of the stream, where the water was alive with large fish.
"These salmon were born here," my husband explained, "and they swam out to sea and spent their lives there, thousands of miles away. Now, at the very end of their lives, they swim back against the current, back to where they were born, where they spawn. They’ve lost most of their muscle mass and are barely alive by the time they reach the end of their long journey; if they’re lucky they manage to seed the next generation before they die."
The salmon looked old and frail indeed—thin, humpbacked and missing layers of their beautiful skin. We were standing near a small churning waterfall, and I couldn’t bear to watch the obviously tired fish make it to the top and then get knocked back downstream again.
My husband laughed at my distress.
"Seriously, they’ve come thousands of miles, that setback is nothing in the big picture. These are the winners, dead or alive. These are the ones who’ve made it home against the odds, who’ve reached their ultimate lifelong goal. Don’t feel sorry for them—be happy for them!"
I stood there in awe. He was right.
Watching those brave tireless fish, it struck me that there are so many parallels to our own life:
1) The road to success can be stinky
Failure stinks. So do mistakes. Sometimes we fail so spectacularly that the carcass of our flameout lies there at the side of our path, for everyone to see. What’s the alternative? Missing out on your true homecoming, and dying out at sea having contributed nothing. Plug your nose and keep going.
2) Waterfalls and rapids may force you to backslide, but you’ll be better off
I came across a sign on the creekside path:
"Riffles and waterfalls help by adding oxygen to the water. They also act as a nursery for insects which the fish feed on."
The waterfalls that set me back in life (such as my depression and a failed first marriage) truly oxygenated me, ultimately nourishing and developing my life in ways I’d never have imagined. If you’re coming against a life current that feels like it’s dragging you farther and farther back, be alert to the strength it’s building in you and all the things it’s teaching you. You will make it through, and one day will make a joyous splash as you reach the other side.
3) Always keep the big picture in mind
This year may feel like a sucky one to you. Maybe you’re nowhere near where you thought you’d be by now. Step back though, and look at your whole life. What things have you accomplished that make you proud? What odds have you triumphed over? In what way are you on the road to triumph now? You will do it again!
4) Rest and even hide in your obstacles
Another sign on the path taught me this:
"Logs, rocks and boulders add complexity to the system, providing hiding and resting spots for fish."
How might your obstacles actually be places to rest or hide? Might they even restore you in some way? (or redirect you in a way you might have otherwise missed?)
I’m reminded of an unexpected obstacle I faced that occupied my resources and made it hard to get anything but the basics done in my business. It was frustrating at first, but then I accepted it for what it was and relaxed into it instead of fighting it. I was forced to make rest, prayer, exercise, good food, and relaxation a priority in order to make it through. I got to step out of rat-racing and ambition for a while and just focused on good self-care. Might you rest or hide in your obstacles in the same constructive way?
5) If you’ve done your best to do what calls you, you can die happy
Since I was a child I wanted to write a book. Now that I’ve done it once, I’m not sure I’ll be able to find the effort and determination to do it again—it was so much more work than I ever dreamed. But I can die happy, knowing that I did it. I still don’t really know why writing a book was such a big deal to me, but it was, and I did it. What do you need to do to die in peace? There may be many things, but see if you can identify one thing, or a few key things, and get going on them.
Popular wisdom states: “There are no sign posts on the crossroads of life.” That often comes to mind when I sit in my practice with people who are facing important decisions in their lives and just don’t know where to go. The same obviously applies when I face the same dilemma, myself. Sooner or later and more or less frequently all of us find ourselves on those life’s crossroads when we have to decide on an alternative and at the same time bid farewell to other opportunities. Changing the job or better not? Continuing a relationship or put an end to it? Emigrate or preferably stay in my native country? Having a child or not? The choice between professional education or an academic career. And … and … and.
Sometimes some of these decisions are more grave than others – for instance those dealing with for or against a child cannot be changed (at least from a certain point on). Naturally that is scary: What if we make the wrong decision? If we waste important opportunities and potentially regret it for the rest of our lives that we made that and not another choice? Or – when the head makes the case for one alternative and the heart objects? Sometimes the fear of the wrong decision is so great that it affects us like the serpent did the rabbit – we do nothing. In that case we sit petrified at our crossroads, unable to move forwards, backwards or sideways.
Of all scenarios that is absolutely the worst alternative. Sometimes I try to illustrate that to myself and my clients with my favorite fairy tale. It was written by Roland Kübler; in its entirety – in addition to many other beautiful tales - it can be found in the book “The Colors of Reality” published by the Lucy Körner publishing company (unfortunately only in German).
The following represents a somewhat (by me) abridged version:
“High in the mountains in the clear air and on the green meadows a child was growing into a young woman. One day the young woman packed a small bundle and told her mother and father that she was leaving in order to see the ocean. Throughout her entire youth she had yearned for nothing as much as for once in her life immersing her body in the ocean’s foaming water and feel the ocean’s salty fresh breath on her lips.
She walked the familiar path into the valley. Because she had a purpose she walked further than ever before. She was often invited to rest a little, sometimes she was discouraged to go on. She was told that the road to the ocean was much too far and difficult. But she would not be deterred and continued on the road she had chosen to take her to the ocean.
One day she reached a major crossroads. Reaching large mountains, the road diverged into four paths, two appeared to lead around the left and two around the right of the mountains. The young woman did not know how to go on and decided to rest and sit down in the middle of the crossroads. For a long time she sat there and was unable to decide on any of the four paths. Each one appeared to be doubtful.
Many other people kept passing her on the crossroads inviting her to join them. A group of travelers suggested that she accompany them into a large city only a few hours from the crossroads. However, the woman thanked them but declined. She did not want to end up in some city, she wanted to go to the ocean. For a long time a lonely wanderer kept her company at her crossroads, shared his bread and wine with her and told her about his life. Finally he also asked her to join him. He was on the way to a forest nearby where he intended to hunt. The woman thanked him for his offer telling him that her destination was the ocean and not some forest.
The weeks passed and with them the changing seasons. After the woman had already been sitting on the crossroads for a long time, her confidence began to wane a little and she began to feel lonely. She accepted the offer of passing farmers to accompany them to their little village and help them with the harvest. She liked it there and spent the entire winter. With the arrival of spring her longing for the ocean returned; she retrieved her bundle and returned to the crossroads. Again, she sat there for a long time until finally a passing woman asked her whether she would like to come with her to the next village and help to sell her goods and tailor shirts. For a while she really enjoyed that and spent a long time in the small village with the women. But finally the longing for the ocean again became overwhelming so she bade the woman farewell and returned to her crossroads. Again, she sat there for a very long time wondering which road would take her to the destination of her dreams. Sometimes during the still, sleepless, moonlit nights she imagined hearing quiet, faraway murmuring as if the ocean was calling her.
It was during one of those nights that she decided to just climb the mountain. The ascent was very laborious. The road wound ever higher across daunting rock formations, dense underbrush and across steep, plunging ridges. Her lonely journey took her higher and higher. At times she felt as if her strength was about to give out.
Then, the woman finally reached the summit. The view was awesome. Way down she could make out the now diminutive crossroads where she had spent so much time. She could see the four roads branching out down there. One of them lead to and past a large city. The other wound through a dense forest to a tiny hut but did not come to an end there, either. The third led through the valley all the way to the farmers whom she had helped bring in their harvest, climbed across a few hills and continued to a fertile plain. The fourth led to the small village where she had tailored the shirts and then continued from there.
The woman stood on the top of the mountain and trembled. She saw the four roads as they diverged upon reaching the mountains, encircling them, converging on a wide plain and continuing their journey to the ocean. The longer she gazed, the more clearly she believed to see the rolling waves. But in the meantime the woman had grown old, her hair thin and gray, her back bent. Her strength to return to that great crossroads where she had spent so much time back then in order to choose the path that would take her to the ocean, was spent. She had not chosen any of them, had not followed one of them to their final destination. It was not until now, way up there on the mountain top that she recognized that all of these roads would have taken her to the ocean. All of a sudden it became clear to her: In her life the vast ocean’s salty, fresh breath would never touch her lips; she would never in her life immerse herself in the ocean’s foaming waves.”
Perhaps this story will help you when you have reached one of your very personal crossroads and don’t know where to go. Have a little faith in life and in yourself – and in the fact that every road eventually will lead you to the ocean.
Social media-induced angst is happening with increasing frequency
Jessie, a 30-year-old real estate agent, was the last of her friends to join Instagram. The day she signed up, she followed some 60 accounts—friends and acquaintances as well as accounts maintained by clothing brands or celebrities she was interested in. Then she busily set about posting photos.
By the end of the month, she was following more than 200 accounts, most of them people she actually knew, though she had amassed only 15 followers of her own. Of course celebrities wouldn’t follow her back, she reasoned—but she couldn’t help but wonder why some in her circle of friends hadn’t, either. “I took it very personally,” she told me. “Was it that they thought my life was so boring that it wasn’t worth following? Or were we not really friends after all?”
The answer? Well, it could have been both. Or it could have been neither. Perhaps her friends were trying to send her a message. Maybe they didn’t really like her. Perhaps they thought her life was dull beyond belief.
Or maybe it was something far more benign than whatever Jessie could, and did, speculate; something closer to user error or an inadvertent slight. Maybe it was simply that her friends didn’t take social media as seriously as she did, and would have been surprised to learn they’d hurt her. But the intention no longer mattered: Jessie had already begun to question relationships she’d felt fine with just weeks earlier.
Social media-induced angst is happening with increasing frequency. Just as businesses and brands use social media to interact with their target audience and monitor consumer interest, people are using social media to gauge how their friends and acquaintances feel about them. “Likes” may be interpreted as approvals. Not “liking,” not following, or otherwise not engaging might translate into snubs. Since social media etiquette is largely undefined, and there are few universally-understood and followed “rules of engagement,” such interpretation is highly subjective and, in many instances, leans towards the worst-case scenario.
Social media has made many aspects of relationships more accessible: Viewing posts from friends scattered around the world can make you feel more connected to them, while the ubiquity of social media can often make it easier to get in touch with someone than more traditional, “offline” means. But social media also helps fuel feelings of isolation and self-doubt. A 2012 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, for example, found that the longer people spent on Facebook each week, the more they agreed that everyone else was happier and had better lives.
For some, that self-doubt can be countered in the same place it originates: through affirming social media interactions. This is part of what keeps users coming back to sites like Instagram and Facebook; favorable attention, when achieved, is an addictive sort of reward. It’s also what makes not receiving those affirmations so dispiriting. Being on the short end of someone’s social media endorsements can create feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and irritation, while being too generous with your own social media praise can feel one-sided when left unreciprocated. So, then, can the friendship.
Such feelings are exacerbated when friends don’t follow you back, in the case of Instagram or Twitter or, worse, quit following or “defriend” you, a circumstance so obsessed-over it has inspired a number of web applications with names like Unfollowgram, Friend or Follow, JustUnfollow, iUnfollow, and Unfriend Finder meant to help users determine who dropped them.
When Ben fulfilled a lifelong dream of opening a bookstore, he created a business page on Facebook. Then he invited all 750 of his friends to “Like” it. Barely a quarter of them did, and every day as he monitored his page waiting for the Likes that didn’t come, he grew more and more offended. Hadn’t he always remembered his friend Lisa’s daughter’s birthday? Wasn’t he a caring friend to Danny? And what about Mike, his best man? Friendship, for Ben, became about score keeping. When those friends who’d let him down on social media called on him in real life, he found himself being frosty.
Sure: It’s normal to feel irritated when a friend responds to another friend’s tweets, but never yours. And it’s understandable to feel a twinge of jealousy when you see two friends having fun together at a concert as you sat home watching Netflix in your PJs, unaware they’d made plans without you. It’s even normal, if a new sort of normal, to upload a retaliatory “good time pic” of your own.
But it’s important to remember that as far as barometers of friendship go, social media is pretty shallow. It’s unrealistic, and dangerous, to presume you know how someone feels about you based on how they react or respond to you, or don’t, through virtual means, whether that presumption is positive or negative. How people use social media is too new, and too varied. Judging how someone feels about you is what in-the-moment conversations and face-to-face encounters are for. It’s called real life—remember that?
How do you let go of things you don’t actually want to give up? By deeply recognizing two things: 1) all desires are created out of beliefs about what you need to be happy and 2) you don’t need any one thing to be happy, no matter how attached to it you may be.
True happiness doesn’t ever lie in capturing and holding tightly to yourself things or people, no matter how much you may love them. It lies in cultivating an inner life state that’s invincibly strong, that can stand to lose its most precious attachments without being destroyed. Paradoxically, this is also the life state from which you can enjoy your attachments the most.
Learning to let go, I’m convinced, is one of the keys to happiness. This is because invariably letting go of something tangible means letting go of some delusion that drove us to covet that tangible thing in the first place (e.g., wanting to become famous because you need others to love and worship you to be happy). And letting go of a delusion is always a good thing because the delusions we believe are what set the height of the ceiling on our happiness.
How do you arrive at a place where you can finally let go of things? For me the answer has always been by going through difficult experiences. How else can we learn the difference between beliefs we hold which are true and those which are false? Some experience has to show us, and unfortunately such experiences are almost always painful.
1) BE YOURSELF
It wasn’t until I was 28 and ready to end my life that a chief resident in my residency program ordered me to do this: “Take some time off, and think about who you are and what you really want to do with your life.” Until then, I’d never given a voice to the real me - I didn’t even know who she was. All my life I had followed the advice of wiser well-meaning adults, and looked at the examples of “success” in the culture around me, in order to make critical life choices such as what to study, what to become etc.
Thanks to that wise resident, instead of an Emergency physician I became a GP, flamenco dancer, author, speaker and coach, and now have a life I truly love.
Honor what your heart tells you, who you truly are, and what you dream of, no matter what anyone else says.
2) “LOVE” YOURSELF IN WAYS YOU WON’T REGRET
In our society we have many dysfunctional examples of how to “treat” yourself - delicious rich foods, expensive clothes, beautiful cars, lavish vacations, nights out partying and celebrating. We’re sold the lie that more is better, perpetuated by people who have already gotten to “more”, come up empty, and figure that the answer is that they simply haven’t gotten enough yet, and need more still.
Learn to take deep care of yourself. If you’re overweight, a double fudge sundae when you “deserve” it is not a gift to your body - it takes you farther away from your goals and dreams. If treating yourself through a spending spree on your credit card pushes you more into debt, it’s not doing you any favors and you’ll likely regret it later. I wish I could have all the money back that I spent on stupid things that I thought would make me feel good.
Think hard about what really nurtures you and moves you towards your goals, instead of focusing on what feels good in the moment (that you might regret later). That’s loving yourself.
3) LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
As a practicing medical doctor, I constantly witness how little we respect and listen to our bodies. If we get tired, or sick, we want an instant fix so that the body can keep going and do whatever we need it to do. In my experience, when you get sick your body is trying to tell you something. Maybe you need to start saying no to something, or someone. Maybe you’re going down the wrong path. Maybe you just need some down time, or a break, or need to play more. Stop and ask yourself, when your body acts up and gets your attention. You will have the answer.
4) WHEN YOU ARE RIGHT WITH YOURSELF, MR. (OR MISS) RIGHT WILL SHOW UP
I truly cannot believe it when I look back at some of the men that I thought were “the one”. I expended so much energy trying to keep them around, and then mourning them when (thank goodness) they disappeared. I had this idea that if I just got into the right relationship, everything in my life would finally work, as if it was some kind of magic ingredient that would make all things right.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally realized the great ironic truth: I would not get a relationship to work, and my life wouldn’t work, until I stopped focusing on finding Mr. Right and focused on doing what needed doing in my own life, instead. When you stop looking outside for fulfillment, that’s when the real magic starts to happen. Usually, that’s when the guy will finally show up or come around. By that point you no longer desperately need him, so the relationship actually has a hope of success.
5) ACTIVELY CREATE YOUR LIFE, DON’T LET IT JUST HAPPEN TO YOU
So many of us pick a safe but unfulfilling career, crash and watch mindless TV when we get home from work, see an entertaining movie on the weekends, take a week or two of vacation a year, and on it goes. The years start to just blend into each other.
My life became what it is today when I started to play more, indulged my creative side (launched by a fantastic book, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) and took risks by following where my heart led me. If I hadn’t followed my crazy impulse to become a professional dancer in my late twenties, and hadn’t followed another crazy impulse to move my base to Mexico, I never would lived the adventure of having my own flamenco dance company in Cabo (and teaching Pink how to salsa), and probably would never have met my husband.
Who would you be if you played a little more, did something wildly creative, or took a few more risks with your life?
6) LEARN TO DELIGHT IN (AND WATCH FOR) THE DIVINE
The main reason that I have been able to do all that I have done in the last ten years is that I learned to rely on what seems to be a delicious divine plan for my life. Every crisis holds a gift inside, and some (such as my depression, or the man who left me for a dancer ten years younger than me) even offer a priceless key to a new and extremely fulfilling chapter in life. “Everything happens for a reason” has proven to be true, and when you live life looking at it that way, everything changes. No matter how bad something seems, you will be able to find something good that comes out of it. More often than not, it will be something great.
7) DON’T PUT OFF WHAT COUNTS MOST, ESPECIALLY IF IT SCARES YOU
I’ve sometimes procrastinated for years on a step that I’ve known all along I should take. When I finally take it, miracles start to happen. What would my life look like today, if I’d lived even more courageously and had had more faith in life, my instincts, and myself? I will never know. You, on the other hand, can start finding out, right now. Take that first step, and the next step. You know what they are. Don’t wait.
How to reduce the pain associated with distressing experiences
Recent studies have demonstrated how a simple mind trick can significantly reduce the emotional distress we feel when reflecting on painful experiences or memories from our past.
Ozlem Ayduk from the University of California and Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan conducted a fascinating series of studies which investigated the factors that distinguish adaptive from maladaptive self-reflection (read about the surprising dangers of brooding here). They discovered that the perspective via which we recall an experience determines how much pain its memory evokes.
When we replay and analyze painful experiences in our minds, our natural tendency is to do so from a first-person or self-immersed perspective—where we see the scene unfolding through our own eyes. Using this perspective usually elicits significant emotional pain as it is makes us relive the experience. Ayduk and Krosss had participants replay emotionally painful memories from a third-person perspective—which involves visualizing ourselves within the scene as if we were watching it from the perspective of an outside observer.
The difference between the two types of perspectives was profound. Participants reported feeling significantly less emotional pain when they envisioned the memory using a third-person perspective than when using a first-person perspective. Further, utilizing a psychologically distant vantage point also allowed them to reconstruct their understanding of their experiences and reach new insights and feelings of closure.
The results were even more impressive because in addition to eliciting far less emotional pain, third-person perspectives also caused significantly lower activation of stress responses and participants’ cardiovascular systems—participant’s blood pressure rose less than those who reflected on painful experiences using first-person perspectives, and it returned to its normal rate more quickly as well.
Lastly, follow-ups one week later indicated that people who used third-person perspectives when reflecting about painful experiences brooded about them far less often and felt less emotional pain when doing so than people who used first-person perspectives when reflecting on their experiences.
How to Change Perspectives When Reflecting about Emotionally Painful Experiences
1. Make sure you are sitting or lying comfortably.
2. Recall the opening scene of the experience or memory.
3. Zoom out until you see yourself within the scene, then zoom out even further so you can see the scene unfold as if you were a stranger that happened to pass by.
4. Play out the scene while maintaining the third-person perspective.
5. Make sure to employ a third person perspective whenever you find yourself reflecting on the experience.
Experience the joy of being in the present moment
It wasn’t until I became a mom that I realized the importance of being (and learned how to do it). My daughter was a beautiful but colicky baby. She cried for hours and seemingly for no reason. I loved her with all of my heart, but it was hard to love the constant screaming. When she was awake, I frantically tried everything possible to keep her occupied and happy. I looked forward to the moment when she would nap so I could have a moment of peace. When she was asleep, I anxiously dreaded when she would wake up and the screaming would start all over again.
A few months after she was born, I saw something on television about a child’s death and I was struck by the level of grief that poor family must be experiencing. It was at that point that my old mentor’s words came back to me. My life had become all about doing and living for the future. There was no time during which I was “being” or even focusing on the current moment. I was living life for a future moment rather than embracing the current one. And I was unhappy because of it.